Bear study in doubt
Targeting of animals could end research regardless of legal ruling
Marshall Helmberger
D. Montgomery/MPR news
Bear researcher Lynn Rogers handfeeds a study bear named June, one of only a handful of bears that has allowed Rogers and research associate Sue Mansfield to walk with her through the woods. June was killed by hunters last fall, and Rogers and Mansfield believe the bear was specifically targeted by opponents of their research methods.

REGIONAL—An administrative law judge is expected to decide by early May whether the Department of Natural Resources legitimately suspended Lynn Rogers research permit last July. Regardless of her decision, however, the future of Rogers decades-long study of wild black bears remains clouded.

In the DNR, Rogers faces a powerful state agency that has shown a willingness to expend considerable resources to end his work. But even if Rogers were successful in his lawsuit challenging the DNR’s decision to deny him the right to radio-collar bears in Eagles Nest Township, he faces a perhaps more intractable, and less publicly accountable foe, in what appears to be a small group of hunters who have targeted Rogers’ research animals for killing.

Rogers and his research associate Sue Mansfield are hesitant to talk at length about the situation due to the current legal case against the DNR, but say they have evidence that their bears were specifically targeted by a small group of hunters, and that at least some DNR officials may have been involved in assisting them. “The DNR definitely knew about the targeting of June,” said Mansfield.

Rogers says he believes the vast majority of hunters would never target a research animal, but he acknowledges that his push to pass a legal prohibition on the taking of study animals angered some bear hunters. And Rogers’ high profile in the news media has, inevitably, attracted the attention of some who don’t share his philosophy towards bears.

And this year, some of those critics made their presence known, as hunters killed fully 30 percent of Rogers’ study animals this past season. That’s far above the long-term average of 5.5 percent in any given hunting season. While it’s a small sample size (his current research permit allowed him to collar no more than ten bears), neither Rogers nor Mansfield believe it’s a coincidence.

Indeed, said Mansfield, the hunters appear to have specifically targeted a bear that she and Rogers dubbed “June,” who was the study’s most valuable animal, because she allowed Mansfield and Rogers to walk with her and her offspring for nearly a decade. “I started walking with June in 2004,” recalls Mansfield, who said she’s felt the loss personally, as well as professionally. “Losing June put a huge hole in the data set we were collecting. We were concentrating on her and her family, the mother/daughter relations and how their territories shift over time,” said Mansfield.

June was a local matriarch, said Mansfield, who dominated a large range at the heart of the study’s territory. She was also grandmother to Hope, a young bear that generated tremendous publicity for Rogers’ work when one of his den cams broadcast her birth live on the Internet.

Since Rogers and Mansfield are studying bear family dynamics, the loss of June was damaging and has forced the research duo to pursue new lines of inquiry.

So even as Rogers and Mansfield fight to reverse the DNR’s permit revocation, they face continued threats to their research even if they emerge successful in their current legal battle.

“I worry that we’re near the end of the research, one way or another,” said Rogers.

Mansfield was circumspect, and said she’s just waiting to see what the judge decides. “I’m not ready to give up the ghost just yet,” she said. “There are still things we can learn.” Still, said Mansfield, the study has developed a huge amount of information over the years. “Some of our data sets are probably close to sufficient,” she said.

Legal issues

The recent actions by hunters could well dissuade Rogers and Mansfield from pursuing a different approach, one that would likely prompt a renewed confrontation with the DNR. It turns out, lawyers disagree on whether the DNR actually has authority to prevent someone from placing a radio-collar on a bear, particularly if doing so does not require anesthetizing the animal. Lawyers, from the attorney generals office, who are representing the DNR in the Rogers case, have argued that Rogers’ actions toward his study bears constitutes the taking or possessing of the animals, which requires a DNR-issued permit. But Rogers and his attorneys have argued that Rogers is not “taking or possessing bears,” since his study animals are not killed or restrained, and remain free in every way. Indeed, Rogers and his attorneys argued as much in a motion for directed verdict they filed in early March, just ahead of the evidentiary hearings last week.

Chief administrative law judge Tammy Pust, who is handling the Rogers case, ruled last month that Rogers is not “taking” bears through his study, but she deferred a decision on whether his actions constitute “possession,” which would still require a permit.

DNR attorneys have argued that Rogers has effective control over the bears because he feeds them, which alters their behavior, and, in effect gives him what is called “constructive possession.” As evidence, the agency points to a video submitted by a bear hunter, who had been an invited guest at Rogers’ Wildlife Research Institute. In it, another bear hunter coaxed a bear to “dance” by holding food over a bear’s head and moving it from side to side. Rogers says he was not present at the time, had no control over the actions of the hunter, and knew nothing about the video until the DNR offered it as evidence.

While the state of Minnesota has little case law to guide Pust’s decision, Rogers’ attorneys have cited court decisions from other states, including a California case in which a judge denied a landowner’s claim against the state for damage to his property caused bya radio-collared tule elk. The landowner claimed that the state had effective control of the elk as a result of the radio-collaring, but the court found that radio-collaring by itself did not establish control.

In another California case, a court found that homeowners, who sought to prevent the city of Hollywood Park from culling a local deer herd, did not have a property interest in the local deer, even though they fed and cared for them, much as family pets.

Pust, in rejecting a later motion from Rogers, noted that California has a different legal definition of animal possession, which makes it less relevant to the current case.

In either case, Pust’s ultimate decision will ultimately rest on relatively subjective criteria, and will likely hinge on her overall assessment of Rogers’ involvement with his study bears. If, for example, Rogers does not exercise control simply by radio-collaring bears, does he do so through feeding them, or walking with them in addition to radio-collaring? Did he exercise control by reuniting Hope with her mother after she had abandoned the cub?

Regardless of Pust’s final ruling, the Department of Natural Resources maintains the final decision-making authority. Rogers maintains the right to appeal Pust’s decision to the Court of Appeals. The DNR does not.

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6 comments on this item

Sometimes we get lucky in this political business!

Well written article...thanks for that!

I want to make the point that so many don't seem to understand. Dr. Rogers does NOT "possess" the research bears at all. They are wild and often choose not to come to him when he needs to briefly tend to their collars (GPS battery changes). He tries again the next day and perhaps they decide to approach and eat a few nuts or grapes while he works on the collar. The WRI research bears are wild and are not possessed or made pets of! When people call them "circus bears" or show pictures of "kissing" or otherwise close interaction between a bear and Dr. Rogers, that is TED, a captive bear who has resided at North American Bear Center for approx. a decade. He and another bear (female-"Honey") were bought and raised from cubs by a private party in WI. When unable to care for them as adults, Dr. Rogers gave them a home at NABC. They have never lived as wild bears! Then Lucky joined them about 7 years ago. He was a Wisconsin bear cub, too. Again someone had him but couldn't take care for him and he couldn't be released so again Dr. Rogers gave him a home. All 3 bears have different personalities, but Ted is the old male who initiates interaction and loves attention from Dr. Rogers...who isn't at NABC except occasionally and there have been pictures and videos made of them together. They are NOT circus bears performing tricks. They never have been "wild bears" nor will they ever be. They are NOT RESEARCH BEARS and don't wear collars. They live in a fenced enclosure of several acres, so they are "possessed" but it's what they NEED and they are well fed and cared for. Most of all, the permit to "possess" them (if that word is so in question) is issued by the Dept. of Agriculture....NOT the MN DNR.

It's either willful ignorance or intentional that some people (even the media at times) insist on mixing the bears and making it appear that Dr. Rogers is physically interacting with the Research Bears - DNR permit (WILD bears) when the "evidence" is actually his interacting with a Captive bear at NABC - Dept. of Agriculture permit.

Much of the "information" the DNR based their case on against Rogers was mistaken, misinterpreted and misinformation ... in part because none of the current DNR "officials" have ever bothered to accept Dr. Rogers invitations to tour NABC and meet the "captive" bears who live there, nor have any of them....even their ace biologist Dave Garshelis ... bothered to visit the WRI Field Station and actually spend some time with Dr. Rogers out in the woods while interacting with the wild bears using "trust" not "tranq" (which is Garshelis' style)....nobody at the MN DNR even knows for sure what Rogers and Mansfield DO out there with the wild bears which they do NOT "possess". It's shocking how the DNR has behaved and built a case on a lot of false evidence (and interacted with non-credible people feeding them "information") ...and now a judge has to try to figure out the truth, when there really is so very little of that on the DNR's side. Worse yet, the DNR has the final say...and the Commish has firmly stated he will NOT issue another permit no matter what.

This is JUSTICE? The bears are the real losers.... how many have freely contributed to important behavioral research, only to be killed to *stop Lynn Rogers*... many people seem to do everything in their power to STOP education. Nothing good in life ever comes from being mean-spirited and willfully ignorant.

Finally, somone who is willing to tell the truth...that there are "hunters" in the woods purposely targetting the research bear. Thank you for your article!

Marshall,

Thank you for this article. It is refreshing to see someone cover the unknown factors in this ongoing dispute with DNR. It is not coincidence that DNR had the frequencies of the radio collared bears or as you pointed out the number of research bears that have been killed. The Permit had been changed to if the bear died the collar was retired. The hunt was on for the radio collared bears which would end Dr. Rogers study. Within the United States scientists are endorsed to research plants, animals , bugs trees what ever their discipline may be they study natural resources and the wonders of the animal world. Except in MN. ~ Where DNR can decide what theories/hypothesis are allowed.

It is amazing that a group of small minded people can not only obstruct this particular research but are allowed to target black bears because of hate or ignorance. Many people have asked where is this hatred coming from? Is it fear, jealousy, or just pure mean spirited people. They hide behind made up names and falsified complainants. There are many that understand the benefits of this research for today as well as future generations. The information shared generously with the public. The construction of an outstanding nature institution and educational center. This center dedicated to one small young bear that was followed by over 100 thousand people. This enthusiastic group were appalled to learn she was targeted and killed. The bear in your picture June we can see how small she really is and people can even begin to claim fear? Fear or is it a misinterpretation of our beautiful North American Black Bear. A misunderstanding that has been changing because of research and sharing of knowledge. June’s cubs are left alone separated from their mother long before it was time due to hatred. We are left to wonder will they make it though the cold MN winter.

Look to the other side, there are many who are trying to tear it down for all the ones who want to learn about wildlife and black bears from this research and the decades of effort that went into it. The hatred in the columns talking about dead bears, bear skin rugs, posting the bears names written on bullet casings, or how they enjoyed eating “hand fed” bear meat they so gleefully killed. This kind of targeting should make those of us with a sense of ethics, eagerness to learn and the pure love of nature to ponder the humanity of our fellow citizens. This senseless targeting of not only the black bears but this dedicated biologist.

Bear hunters are not hunters. Shooting a beautiful, playful, harmless wild animal for fun while it is dining on baited doughnuts is vile. Find a real hobby.

How did my first post on this subject end up on the opinion page??????

Well Hard Rock: I don't want them coming into the bedroom and crawling into bed with me. There would be no room for the wife and dogs (kids).

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